Pilgrims’ progressivism?

November 25, 2010 § Leave a comment

A FEW THANKSGIVING get-togethers ago my sister brought a date who was half Wampanoag. They were the ones who welcomed the Pilgrims t_o these shores  — which they no doubt came to regret.

Like everything in American history, Thanksgiving is an ideological battleground. In the era of multiculturalism it became a chance for the Left to point out that the arrival of the English wasn’t such a hot deal for the natives, and for the Right to get in a snit and denounce the lefties as effete America-haters.

Nowadays the emphasis is economic, so Thanksgiving has become a point of struggle between the two hotly contested (but ill-defined) constructs of “Capitalism” and “Socialism.”  Folks on the Right have taken up the claim that the Plymouth Colony (or in some variations, the Jamestown Colony) started out as a socialistic endeavor, but failed miserably — to be rescued only by the institution of private property. This narrative, too, is contested.

To turn the stories of the colonies into tales about modern “capitalism’s” superiority over “socialism” is a great oversimplification. The truth contains elements of both views.

1) Socializing labor, in most cases, is not a good way to produce and distribute wealth. The early Christian community thrived under such a system, under the superintendence of Apostles and with the assistance of divine miracles. They presumably benefited from an extra portion of divine grace to preclude the free-riding temptation and enable them to “bear one another’s burdens.” Sixteen hundred years later, in an age of fewer miracles — and a culture very different from that of the first-century Mediterranean world — it’s not hard to understand why such a setup didn’t work. Most people are motivated by personal gain and, faced with scarcity, do not want to toil away to give the fruits to others. Being forced to give to those who can work, but don’t, is injustice; indeed, even Paul eventually had to remonstrate the faithful: “He who does not work, neither shall he eat.”

When Plymouth Colony land was parceled out for private use, and each laborer could keep whatever he produced, productivity shot up. So there’s definitely a lesson there about socializing labor and its products: this leads to less product.

3) Yet the system that gave the Plymouth Colony success was not what we think of as “the capitalist system” today. Nor was  it a total vindication of  our concept of “private property,” as mistakenly proclaimed in this piece at The Volokh Conspiracy: although workers owned their produce,

…the land was still owned in common and could not be sold or inherited, but each family was allotted a portion, and they could keep whatever they grew. The governor “assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number for that end.” (Fred Foldvary, “Thanksgiving Day — the True Story“)

During this period they could work and keep what they produced from the land (i.e., their wages), but could not profit from commodifying the land as such.

Our system today makes land itself a for-profit asset. This can’t really be called capitalism; such a system is more accurately called landlordism. It actually taxes labor and employers and hands the lion’s share of benefit to owners of land and resources. The first layer of “tax” — which mainstream economics fail to recognize — is the private tax of rent, i.e., the price you pay to occupy a space on the earth. Of course, the second layer of taxes are the government taxes: the ones that finance the infrastructure and services which, again, mainly enrich speculators and holders of high-value properties by enhancing their property values.  

If you include the many other types of state-granted advantages, you could call the whole mess privilegism, or a rentier system – – based on rent-seeking both literal and figurative. This system confiscates the rewards of work, in a number of ways, and funnels them to those who did no work but simply own a government-granted monopoly license to appropriate others’ wealth.

So, while we can learn something from the Pilgrim story — that it’s more just, and works better, when people can individually use land and keep everything they produce on it — we should realize that the land-monopolizing/commodifying system we have today called “private property” actually precludes that  happy outcome. To further understand this, it’s useful to peruse another Pilgrim parable: Mason Gaffney’s “For Want of a Landlord.

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